Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 8 minutes (2,206 words)
The Favourite does not take its women at face value. Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist tragicomedy has Olivia Colman starring as Queen Anne, a crumbling presence plagued by illness and an infantile disposition, neither of which stop her from playing magical beds with her two favorites, right hand woman Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and scheming servant Abigail (Emma Stone). This is not the stuff of the male gaze, though a male is gazing: it is over the top, tilting-into-farce, Grand Guignol panto. In one scene, Colman’s doleful Anne, secluded in her bedroom, morosely sticks a fork into a banquet-sized blue cake, shoves it into her mouth, vomits into a vase (everyone vomits into vases in this film) and then, wet bits of blue staining her mouth, acid-sweet bile in ours, takes another mouthful of that same cake. It’s gloriously grotesque.
The other two actresses are burlesque in a different way. Weisz is dragged so determinedly across the screen by a well-meaning horse that her beauty is deformed into a fulvous pulp. As for Stone, those cartoon-sized eyes are almost beside the point, which is her mouth contorting into various exclamations. They are united by the fact that their muddy, beaten, twisted faces always return to an alluring resting state (scars notwithstanding). Since Hollywood continues to celebrate beautiful women for transforming into ugly women — see Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, Patricia Arquette in Escape at Dannemora, Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots — these actresses can seduce us with their momentary lack of vanity while leaving us secure in the knowledge that they remain appealing.
But this year three actresses are cementing another tradition. Colman, Toni Collette in Hereditary, and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are rewarded not for mutating, but for being, and not just for being, but expanding the “ugly” space in which they dwell to encroach on the sprawling establishment. This is something of a dual subversion: Not only do these women fail to meet Hollywood’s standards, they are lauded for pushing their undesirability to the extreme. It is the new female grotesque, and it supplants our idea of what a woman should be with what she is.
* * *
Five years ago, Colman was passed over by America. In 2013, Fox announced the network was developing a remake of Broadchurch, the British series in which Colman and David Tennant play detectives investigating a child murder in a small coastal town. While Tennant reprised his role in the U.S. version, Colman wasn’t even asked. She was instead replaced by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, six years older but also blonder and with a face that wouldn’t be out of place behind a Fox News desk. Colman reportedly said in response, “if Hollywood calls, I’m going, but I can also see why they haven’t called. I eat a bit too much, my teeth aren’t perfect, I’ve got eye bags. I look like a normal 39-year-old woman — but in England no one minds that.”
It says something about Colman that despite this blatant rejection, she leaned further into normalcy. The now-44-year-old actress put on another 35 pounds to play the imperious, mercurial Queen Anne. “I much prefer these sorts of roles because there is no pressure to be something you are not, and I am obviously not glamorous,” she told the Independent. “For Anne, I wasn’t meant to look nice or be nice, and it was liberating and brilliant.” That her approach is now being praised by the same system that initially punished her for it, suggests that England is no longer the only place where normal can not only be acceptable, but preferable.
Straining to think of farcical performances equivalent to Colman’s in The Favourite, I could only come up with this: “You’re terrible, Muriel.” In the Australian film that made her famous, 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, Toni Collette played the homely titular anti-heroine in garish red lipstick, leopard print, and a side ponytail. In one scene, four of her friends, all of whom look like various Barbie collectibles, break up with her because she is “fat” and unstylish. “You bring us down, Muriel,” one of them says as Collette’s mouth slowly deforms into a grimace and she performs the nonpareil ugly cry: loud bawling, mouth open, teeth out, tongue out, lipstick smearing. “I’m not nothing,” she wails.
Her ascent was confirmation. The role won Collette a couple of awards and eventually landed her where she is today, in Hereditary, that same elastic face rewarded for its encapsulation of abject grief. In one scene, her son, sensing she is angry with him, asks that she release herself from her inner burden. And she does; after she yells wildly, we watch her searing hatred and anger slip into sadness, her face dragged down to hell. As Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety, “She plays Annie as a woman who begins to wear her buried rage and guilt on the outside. It pours out of her, as if she were “possessed,” and indeed she is — but by what, or whom?” This spectacle of disfigurement helps to reframe the way in which women are allowed to express emotion, the preservation of allure — “I don’t want to cry, my mascara will run” — shouted down into oblivion.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? yields a more quietly ugly performance. Melissa McCarthy plays serial forger Lee Israel as a dyspeptic alcoholic with a shapeless haircut, no makeup, and a perpetual frown — even her smile looks like a scowl. Though the Gilmore Girls alum is known for her jovial on-screen presence, her performance as Lee is a throwback to the role that made her famous, the oversexed, mannish Megan in Bridesmaids. There, she chewed the scenery. Here she just spreads out in it. “She cares about her intellect more than her appearance and doesn’t care about the things that we assign to women as what they’re supposed to be interested in,” director Marielle Heller has said of the character. In McCarthy’s hands, Lee is not particularly likable, but she is understandable. One wonders what she would have been in original star Julianne Moore’s — would the apartment riddled with cat shit have rung false?
Despite her toxicity, McCarthy’s Lee is not drawn asexual. She has a sweet flirtation with a woman who runs a bookstore (Dolly Wells), though her surprise at her interest and the fact that it never progresses past one date does paint her love life as unsuccessful. Still, we’ve come a long way since 1991, when Kathy Bates won the Oscar for best actress by playing a virginal psychopath in Misery. The pre-stan “number one fan” of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), her character, Annie Wilkes, is a milk-fed matron who turns on a dime, refuses to swear, and wears her hair in a clip paired with pinafores. Her ability to juggle G-rated phrases like “dirty birdy” with X-rated torture makes her one of the top villains of all time, though there remains a superficiality to her ferocity. When Misery moved to Broadway three years ago, Julia Roberts was considered for the lead, but, according to Lisa Rogak’s Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, the author nixed the idea, describing Annie as simply “a brawny woman who can sling a guy around, not a pixie.” Still, Bates, who had been acting for decades, competed with Roberts and Pretty Woman for the best actress Oscar in 1991 — and won. “I’d like to thank the Academy,” she said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to say that.”
* * *
The same year Bates won for Misery, Whoopi Goldberg did for Ghost, heralding work by actresses of color which would in some ways be even more revolutionary. The only black woman nominated for best supporting actress that year, Goldberg took home the trophy for playing Oda Mae Brown, a snake-oil psychic who can actually commune with the dead. Though Goldberg was an established actress by that time and had already been nominated for an Oscar for The Color Purple, this was as rare a role for black women in general as it was for her. Instead of being straight drama or straight comedy, as Goldberg was used to, Oda Mae seamlessly threaded the absurd through the serious. Arriving 40 minutes in, she yanks Ghost out from under its beautiful white leads (“Wanna kiss my butt?”) with her voluminous hair, scene-stealing outfits, foul mouth, and resting wry face.
The quintessential Oda Mae moment comes when she is asked by ghost Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) to withdraw $4 million of blood money from the bank. She arrives in her Sunday best looking like a fuchsia peacock, complete with jaunty pillbox hat and matching clutch (white gloves included). Buoyed by the prospect of becoming a millionairess, she motors out of the bank high on adrenalin only to be told by Sam that she has to pass on the money. He points out a church stand — “I know you don’t think I’m giving this $4 million to a bunch’a nuns!” — and she hands the money over in bad grace before walking off in a huff. Sam watches her go with a beatific expression on his face. “I think you’re wonderful Oda Mae,” he calls. At that she turns around, in the middle of a busy road, her legs almost in gridiron hut stance, and spits in his general direction. Then she harumphs away, holding her purse like a dejected football player cradling his loss.
There are two kinds of performances by black actresses that tend to be lauded by the Academy. Since Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Oscar in 1939 for Gone with the Wind, the preference has been for less Dorothy Dandridge-looking women in morally superior “Mammy” roles, such as Octavia Spencer’s turns in The Help and The Shape of Water. When black women are considered traditionally beautiful, they tend to be recognized by the Academy for being tortured, ravaged — Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Naomie Harris in Moonlight. It’s okay to be less appealing, as long as you’re a symbol of virtue or remain appealing out of costume. God help you if you’re a black woman who is deemed unattractive off screen and you have no redeeming qualities on screen either.
Mo’Nique became the rare exception in 2010 after playing the repellent abusive mother of the titular Precious. Having constructed her career on raunchy stand-up that had an enormous following in the black community (though, as the Netflix debacle suggests, that stature matters less to its white executives), Mo’Nique dropped her trademark hair and makeup to sweat through a camisole and snarl at Gabourey Sidibe. Despite her character’s almost unbelievable vileness, there was a palatability to the “poor black violent single mother” trope for a white audience (and Academy) more familiar with racial stereotypes than reality. But it didn’t come in a presentable package. Mo’Nique was too much — too loud, too assertive, too entitled. In the end her win was overshadowed by the frivolous controversy that ensued when she refused to campaign — “You want me to campaign for an award — and I say this with all the humility in the world — but you want me to campaign for an award that I didn’t ask for?” — which is why, seven years after her win, it made sense that she didn’t feel she owed much to Hollywood. “I think a big highlight for me was when they called me for the first time for the NAACP Image Awards,” she told Variety. “Because as a little girl, I didn’t see people like me receiving the Oscar.”
* * *
In her seminal 1994 book The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, Modernity, Mary Russo outlined the kind of women our culture embraces. “The classical body is transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with ‘high’ or official culture,” she wrote. “The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple and changing; it is identified with non-official “low” culture . . . and with social transformation.” But the transformation to the new female grotesque — that of the unacceptable woman pushing her unacceptability to its limits — is gaining traction. The conversation around gendered exploitation in Hollywood has helped to expand the definition of women’s roles. Lena Dunham, meanwhile, spent much of her ascent exposing her own body on screen to liberate those of regular women (as performance artist Carolee Schneeman once told me, “She’s the ideal of normal”). Women of color are also being recognized for their part in dismantling the white ideal. And the number of women behind the scenes has swelled. Toni Collette co-executive produced Hereditary, Marielle Heller directed Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which was co-written by Nicole Holofcener), and Deborah Davis co-executive produced and co-wrote The Favourite. Perhaps Davis is even responsible for The Favourite’s final scene in which Queen Anne, beset by stroke, barely able to walk, still manages to physically dominate Abigail, her hand on the younger, comelier woman’s head, possibly tearing Abigail’s hair out as she strokes the monarch’s leg. In Lady Sarah’s words: “Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun.”
* * *
Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.
Sarah Scoles| Longreads | June 2018 | 23 minutes (5,714 words)
It’s a summer day in Salt Lake City, and tourists are resting inside the Mormon Tabernacle, staring at the enormous, golden pipes of the Tabernacle organ, which are topped with carved wooden finials that appear to scrape the ceiling. These are the same pipes I stared at on a satellite feed from my hometown chapel in central Florida twice a year until I was 18. Although I’d remotely watched the church’s semiannual conference religiously as a kid, I’d never been inside the building until now, more than 12 years after leaving the church and becoming an atheist, and 10 after coming out as a lesbian. My parents have spent those years trying to come to terms with these shifts, but our détente has involved not talking much about any of it. This is the Mormon way.
It’s strange then to find myself in this Tabernacle, waiting for my mom’s plane to arrive in Salt Lake so that she and I can attend the Sunstone Symposium, a yearly gathering that includes liberal Mormons and ex-Mormons who are redefining their relationship with the church. But here I am.
Two young missionaries step up to the pulpit to demonstrate the building’s acoustics for those in attendance. One rips a newspaper, and I can hear the tear from my perch in the shadows at the back of the room. It sounds soft and wet, like the stories it contains might be smeared. The demonstration ends and the missionaries walk offstage, accompanied by a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: God be with you till we meet again. The harmonies burrow into my chest like they belong there, which in some sense they always will. The Mormon worldview shaped mine — I could speak in King James English at age 4 — even though the two now stand apart, like puzzle pieces where the outcropping of one is the cavern of the other. Only together do Mormonism and I make a full picture. Read more…
As T.S. Eliot said, “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” Recently, much whimpering has come from the thousands of infirm people waiting in England’s overcrowded, understaffed hospitals. The sick lay on stretchers in hallways for entire days, or on the floor. Some wait for hours in the ambulances that brought them to the hospital.
For the London Review of Books, James Meek examines the crisis that has struck England’s National Health Service. Preparing for a surge of aging citizens with various ailments and a dependence on caretakers, NHS initiated a transition from an old hospital-based system to a new ambitious system centered around home health care. Unfortunately, the transition has not been smooth, and the future looks uncertain. The reform also has people asking what kind of country they want England to be: one of solidarity and publicly funded health care, or one of privately funded care where, like the United States, everyone fends for themselves.
A whistleblower told the Health Service Journal that ambulance delays in the east of England had led to the deaths of at least 19 patients and serious harm to 21 more. On 1 January, an 81-year-old woman in Clacton, Essex, dialed 999, complaining of chest pains. The ambulance took three hours and 45 minutes to arrive. It was too late. A few days later, a 52-year-old man in Norfolk collapsed with severe chest pain and vomiting. He was taken to the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital, but had to wait in the back of the ambulance that took him there for four and a half hours before being seen by a doctor inside the building. He was told to go home and collapsed again when he got there. Two ambulances sent to get him were diverted to other calls and by the time he returned to hospital, his life couldn’t be saved.
One doctor in a major A&E department in the east of England told me he’d witnessed short cuts taken by staff under pressure. For a time, ambulance crews had been allowed to leave patients in a hospital area that wasn’t technically A&E reception. One elderly patient with abdominal pain was diverted within the hospital from emergency medicine to a GP-style consultation, sent home, returned to the hospital a few hours later, and died. “What I’ve seen is the relentlessness of the shifts,” the doctor said. “The intensity. The feeling of higher and higher accountability. And then a lack of investment in staff. Asking them to do more and more and more, to cover more and more patients. There’s no give and take. The staff they should be investing in get more and more demoralized. You’re at risk of creating a Mid-Staffs environment where people don’t really know who they’re working for and start accepting risk that previously would have been deemed unacceptable. They stop reporting things because they reported them before and nothing happened. It’s creating a dangerous culture.” What should be done? “Stop decreasing capacity. Build capacity and build staffing. The party line is always ‘it doesn’t affect patient care.’ Of course it fucking does.”
David Reid | The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia | Pantheon | March 2016 | 31 minutes (8,514 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from The Brazen Age, by David Reid, which examines the “extraordinarily rich culture and turbulent politics of New York City between the years 1945 and 1950.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
* * *
Probably I was in the war.
—NORMAN MAILER, Barbary Shore (1951)
A hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.
In march 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”
At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”
Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat”—the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.
“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s. Read more…
Eric Foner | Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad | W. W. Norton & Company | January 2015 | 31 minutes (8,362 words)
* * *
The history of slavery, and of fugitive slaves, in New York City begins in the earliest days of colonial settlement. Under Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1664, the town of New Amsterdam was a tiny outpost of a seaborne empire that stretched across the globe. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into their North American colony, New Netherland, as a matter of course. The numbers remained small, but in 1650 New Netherland’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony, used slave labor to build fortifications and other buildings, and settlers employed them on family farms and for household and craft labor. Slavery was only loosely codified. Slaves sued and were sued in local courts, drilled in the militia, fought in Indian wars, and married in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the British seized the colony in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, including 375 slaves. Read more…
Vincent Czyz | Longreads | June 2018 | 21 minutes (5,418 words)
I was born into Cold War America, 1963: Brezhnev, the Kremlin, the KGB, ICBMs, the Warsaw Pact. My father was a hard-line Republican, a Rough Rider looking for his Roosevelt. Reentry vehicles, NATO, first-strike capability, limited strike, and hardened silos were all part of my vocabulary by the time I was 12. He dismissed with contempt liberals who wanted to cut the defense budget and showed me bar graphs comparing U.S. and Soviet military hardware. The red bars representing Soviet numbers always towered alarmingly over the blue ones, except when it came to helicopters; the United States had a lot of those.
The stalemate between the superpowers has been over for a long time, but every now and then I still catch some of the fallout. While making a furniture run, for example, with a friend — Danny had mothballed a bedroom set at his mother’s house and needed a hand getting it into his truck. We went to the front porch in jeans, construction boots, jackets. It was a chilly March afternoon. He rang the bell.
Danny’s mother, a small Korean woman, opened the door. She gasped when she saw me, then covered her mouth. I almost stepped back, wondering what I’d done wrong.
Mrs. Lo Cascio lowered her hands. “You look just like your father!”
From his early 20s on, my father had had a mustache, and this was the first time Mrs. Lo Cascio had seen me with a beard. Her reaction was a rerun of an incident at my father’s wake in June 1983, a couple of weeks before I turned 20. Uncle Eddy, an adopted member of the family, put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You’re the ghost of your father when he was 17.” As often happens at funerals, his face performed a high-wire act between smiling and crying.
Justin Quarry | Longreads | January 2018 | 22 minutes (5,444 words)
When my father died in the winter of 2000, back when I was newly 19, the single thing he left me was a nine-millimeter pistol. The day after his funeral, my grandfather simply told me my father wanted me to have it, handing it to me in its ragged original packaging — spare bullets, along with the pistol, spilling from the Styrofoam encasement as I opened the discolored box.
This inheritance both surprised and confused me. For one thing, though I’d spent my early childhood with rifles and shotguns racked against the walls of our home and the rear window of my father’s Jeep, with countless taxidermied deer heads gazing down at me apathetically, I’d never known my father to own a handgun. For another, unlike all the other men in my family, I’d never spent a second in a tree stand, didn’t even recall playing with toy guns; rather than pretending to shoot deer or Iraqi soldiers, for instance, one Christmas I requested and received a custom-made deer costume for my Cabbage Patch doll, Casey.
The pistol also puzzled me because I hadn’t necessarily expected to inherit anything at all from my father. Over the prior 10 years, my mother had to fight for nearly all the child support she’d received, and it was an open secret that, when my mother had divorced him, he’d spent the $20,000 my great-grandmother had given him to split between my older brother and me, once we were of age, on a revenge Grand Prix. My mother had pined for a Grand Prix in the months before she left him, and so he bought one for himself, kept it immaculate, and always left it in the furthest reaches of parking lots, where it was least likely to get dinged.
Two weeks before I’d gotten the gun, and hardly a month into my second semester at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, my father’s family called me back home to Northeast Arkansas to visit him for the last time I would see him conscious. Only a week after that, they called me home again to see him, then in a coma, die.
That day, when we all knew his body was finally going to expire as we listened to its death rattle, none of the other men in my family, which is to say none of the people closest to him, could bear to be with him. My brother, who was six years older than me and had lived with my father after our parents divorced, was too afraid. My grandfather, who was also my father’s best friend, my father his namesake, was too emotionally unstable, sleepless for weeks, having had a dream in which my father was lost on a hunt at night, and as he called for my grandfather, no matter which way my grandfather pointed his light, no matter which way he stumbled in the woods, my grandfather couldn’t find his son. And so there I was at my father’s bedside with the women of the family — with the women, where I usually was. I thought that as one of his three closest living relations, even though he and I weren’t at all intimate, it was my place to be with him when he died.
[Fiction] A story about an unemployed ethnomusicologist, gray whales, and Miranda July:
‘Garfield was my favorite president,’ said Brandon.
‘James A. Garfield?’ said Kara. ‘President from March to July of 1881?’
‘From Ohio?’ she said.
‘That’s the one,’ said Brandon.
He said: ‘I think he would have proven to be an effective leader if he’d been given the chance.’
Charles put his hand on Kara’s knee.
‘That’s funny,’ said Charles. ‘Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, is my favorite presidential assassin, and it’s not just because we share a name.’